Thursday, January 20, 2011

Plant of the Week: Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper'

I want you to meet my new favorite hellebore, Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper'.  I have never met a hellebore I didn't like and my garden is full of them, but I have to say that 'Josef Lemper' has quickly risen to the top of my list of favorites.

Helleborus niger 'Josef Lemper'

Having only been in the ground since mid-summer, the first flower appeared shortly after Thanksgiving.  Two more opened prior to Christmas and last week, even under four inches of snow, the "little plant that could" kept right on flowering!  This week, with the snow finally gone, three more flowers have opened and I can see at least a half dozen more buds that will open over the next two to three weeks.  Not bad for a plant that has only been in the garden six months and was just a small, 1-gallon specimen to begin with.  I can't wait to see what it does in future years!

Helleborus Winter Jewels™ Golden Lotus
Helleborus x hybridus 'Golden Lotus', photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

Other favorite hellebores include Helleborus x hybridus 'Golden Lotus', an exquisite double-flowered form with creamy yellow petals and Helleborus x ericsmithii 'Silver Moon' with black-green foliage traced with silvery veins and white flowers that have appeared as early as mid-January in some years.  This year, though, it looks like the big show is going to come in February.

Helleborus x ericsmithii 'Silver Moon'

Helleborus 'Ivory Prince' was up near the top of the list for a long time and it is second to none where flower power is concerned, but I lost all of my plants to crown rot last summer--and my garden is nowhere close to being wet, since I live on a dry ridge.  I'm going to try it again, but its propensity to succumb to crown rot has moved it down the list a little ways--at least for now.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Chasing Winter Away

It's Sunday afternoon and much of the South is bracing for yet another nasty swipe by Old Man Winter.  He has already taken a couple of good whacks at us this season and it looks as though tonight's snow and ice may extend as far south as Birmingham and perhaps even further!  To help chase away those winter blues, I've been culling through my photo files and trying to reduce the number of unwanted, unneeded and unusable photos that I just haven't gotten around to deleting yet.  Going through file after file helped me realize just how many photos I have of plants that help me get through the cold, gray days of winter in my garden and I thought I'd share a few favorites with you.

Edgeworthia chrysantha has long been one of my favorite winter-flowering shrubs.  In middle Tennessee, we can expect flowers by mid-February, but the plant needs to be sited in a protected location so that cold weather doesn't freeze the early blooms.  In just the right location, you can expect a 4 to 5-foot tall shrub with a 5 to 6-foot spread, but they often don't get quite that large.  A particularly cold winter may cause some stems to die back, but with careful pruning and shaping the plant will rebound quickly.  Morning sun with afternoon shade is the ideal location, preferably in rich, humusy, evenly moist soil with some protection from bitter winter winds.

The most serious of my plant collecting friends are really into this stunning relative of some of our most important commercial fruit crops--peaches, plums and cherries.  Prunus mume is a species of flowering apricot whose blooms appear in the dead of winter when planted in just the right climate.  In my garden, they frequently get frozen, but I don't mind.  The few days of incredible enjoyment they give me each year, sometimes as early as the end of January, make them worth whatever space they take up in the garden.  It helps that they are intoxicatingly fragrant!

Cornus officinalis is one of our earliest flowering dogwoods.  Dogwood?  Sure enough!  As early as February in a warm winter the golden yellow blooms burst open to brighten even the grayest days of winter.  Imagine the flower of the white flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) that most of us are familiar with and then think of that little green "puff" in the center of the bloom.  That "puff" is the little cluster of true flowers that are surrounded by the showy white bracts that we think of as being the flower, but the truth is, it's not.  Just like the Christmas poinsettia, the showy parts are actually bracts and not flowers at all.  In the case of Cornus officinalis, it's missing those showy bracts and it just has the little "puff"--and they happen to be brilliant, golden yellow!  A most welcome sight as winter begins to lose its grip and spring slowly emerges.

Late winter and early spring in my garden are defined by the flowering of the hellebores, or Lenten roses.  Known as the stinking hellebore (an absolutely horrendous common name, as there is nothing about it that stinks!), Helleborus foetidus is one of the earliest flowering of all the plants in my garden.  In fact, it's not uncommon for buds to begin appearing at the top of the plant as early (or late, depending on your perspective) as Thanksgiving!  Those buds will go through a tremendous amount of cold to begin opening their pale green petals the very minute the weather acts as though it is going to moderate!  Helleborus foetidus is almost always in full bloom by mid-February and will bloom for a full three months!

Also beginning in February, the witchhazels take center stage in the late winter and early spring garden.  Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise' is a little later, but is also one of the showiest of all of the witchhazels.  Usually in flower around the first week of March, it lights up the garden for about two weeks in early spring and again in fall, when its leaves turn golden yellow with touches of orange and red!

In years when we're lucky (I guess) enough to have a little snow on the ground in late February, the beautiful and diminutive Iris reticulata will actually push its blooms right up through the snow!  Growing from a small, underground bulb, you need to plant these in the autumn--at the same time you would be planting tulips and daffodils.  Perfect perennials, Iris reticulata likes a location in the garden where it can spend the summer hot and dry.  Given the proper conditions it will multiply rapidly and return year after year, putting on a bigger and better show each and every spring.

I noticed yesterday when I was getting out of the car that the 'February Gold' Narcissus that are planted next to the driveway are up about 2" and are already showing the tips of their flower buds!  'February Gold' is one of the earliest of all daffodils and with the reflected heat of the driveway, they are almost always in full bloom by the third week of February!  Spring can't be far off now!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Plant of the Week: Parthenocissus tricuspidata 'Fenway Park'

In addition to a regular blog post each week, I thought I would start doing a "Plant of the Week" feature and introduce my readers to some of the unique, unusual and beautiful plants that I have known and grown over the years.  Here is the inaugural "Plant of the Week" post:

I love a good clinging, climbing vine.  Make it a bright golden yellow and it's truly a torrid affair!  'Fenway Park' was one of those have-to-have-it plants from the moment I first laid eyes on it--and it was HARD to find.  Even now, it's not a plant that everyone is familiar with and certainly not one that you'll walk into just any garden center and find.  And it's sloooooowww, so alot of growers don't want to take the time to produce it, but for me, being a slower grower is part of the beauty.  The fact that it won't climb three stories in as many weeks makes it a much more manageable plant for most of us to live with in the garden.  This doesn't mean that it won't eventually reach 30 feet, but it will take longer to get there and that gives us, the gardener, an opporunity to help direct and control its growth.

Botanical Name:  Parthenocissus tricuspidata 'Fenway Park'
Common Name:  Fenway Park Boston Ivy
Hardiness:  USDA Zones 4-9
Exposure: Full sun in northern and central climates, morning sun in the deeper South
Habit:  Self-clinging vine
Size:  30-40 feet, depending on the size of the structure it has to climb on.  Because of its slower rate of growth, it is not difficult to maintain it at a smaller size.
Features:  Brilliant, golden chartreuse leaves throughout the summer and spectacular fall color in shades of red, orange and gold.  Deciduous, losing its leaves in winter.